Founding Wisdom

While I am not one to hold the Founders as infallible and never to be questioned, they did have some very interesting and intelligent things to say on the nature of Liberty and of Governments. Some of these things can even be seen as relevant to today’s political debates:

 The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government. - Patrick Henry

 If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen. - Samuel Adams


Live free or die; death is not the worst of evils. - General George Stark


Thomas Jefferson:

 "Our attachment to no nation upon earth should supplant our attachment to liberty."-Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms


A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. A Summary View of the Rights of British America, August, 1774


To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical. Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom, 1779


The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. -Letter to Colonel
Carrington 1788

 The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. - Letter to Abigail Adams, 1787


"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it." - Letter to Archibald Stuart 1791

 The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Notes on Virginia


A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government. 1st Inaugural 1801


Considering the general tendency to multiply offices and dependencies and to increase expense to the ultimate term of burthen which the citizen can bear, it behooves us to avail ourselves of every occasion which presents itself for taking off the surcharge, that it never may be seen here that after leaving to labor the smallest portion of its earnings on which it can subsist, Government shall itself consume the whole residue of what it was instituted to guard. - 1st Inaugural 1801


"if we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy." -Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1802

 Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law,” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual. - Letter to Isaac H. Tiffany 1819

 "I think myself that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious." - Letter to William Ludlow, 1824


…it is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected. Were not this great country divided into States, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority…Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread. Autobiography

 John Adams:


There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty. - 1772


"...Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property: But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever. When the People once surrendered their share in the Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they can never regain it."


"Power must never be trusted without a check."


"The way to secure liberty is to place it in the people's hands, that is, to give them the power at all times to defend it in the legislature and in the courts of justice."


"There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt."
There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution. Letter to Jonathan Jackson 1789


The consequences arising from the continual accumulation of public debts in other countries ought to admonish us to be careful to prevent their growth in our own. 1797


James Madison:


It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed? - Federalist Papers 62


He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression: for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself. -- First Principles of Government (1795)


The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.


The people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived.


The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.


The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever? Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments - 1785
If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions. It is to be remarked that the phrase out of which this doctrine is elaborated, is copied from the old articles of Confederation, where it was always understood as nothing more than a general caption to the specified powers, and it is a fact that it was preferred in the new instrument for that very reason as less liable than any other to misconstruction. - Letter to Edmund Pendleton 1792


The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature. But the Doctrines lately advanced strike at the root of all these provisions, and will deposit the peace of the Country in that Department which the Constitution distrusts as most ready without cause to renounce it. For if the opinion of the President not the facts & proofs themselves are to sway the judgment of Congress, in declaring war, and if the President in the recess of Congress create a foreign mission, appoint the minister, & negociate a War Treaty, without the possibility of a check even from the Senate, untill the measures present alternatives overruling the freedom of its judgment; if again a Treaty when made obliges the Legislature to declare war contrary to its judgment, and in pursuance of the same doctrine, a law declaring war, imposes a like moral obligation, to grant the requisite supplies until it be formally repealed with the consent of the President & Senate, it is evident that the people are cheated out of the best ingredients in their Government, the safeguards of peace which is the greatest of their blessings. - Letter to Thomas Jefferson 1798


To cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations having correspondent dispositions; to maintain sincere neutrality toward belligerent nations; to prefer in all cases amicable discussion and reasonable accommodation of differences to a decision of them by an appeal to arms; to exclude foreign intrigues and foreign partialities, so degrading to all countries and so baneful to free ones; to foster a spirit of independence too just to invade the rights of others, too proud to surrender our own, too liberal to indulge unworthy prejudices ourselves and too elevated not to look down upon them in others; 1st Inaugural Address1809

 
With respect to the words "general welfare," I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators. - Letter to James Robertson 1831